Werner Herzog Chimes In - Permission

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Werner Herzog Chimes In

Ihave a friend in Italy who’s an independent filmmaker. Many years ago, back when he was an angry young man, he wrote a letter to his hero, the great German director Werner Herzog. My friend poured out his heart in this letter, complaining to Herzog about how badly his career was going, how nobody liked his movies, how difficult it had become to make films in a world where nobody cares, where everything is so expensive, where there is no funding for the arts, where public tastes have run to the vulgar and the commercial . . .

If he’d been looking for sympathy, however, my friend had gone to the wrong place. (Although why anyone would turn to Werner Herzog, of all people, for a warm shoulder to cry on is beyond me.) Anyhow, Herzog wrote my friend a long reply of ferocious challenge, in which he said, more or less, this:

“Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you must, but stop whining and get back to work.”

(In this story, I’ve just realized, Werner Herzog was essentially playing the role of my mother. How wonderful!)

My friend framed the letter and hung it over his desk, as well he should have. Because while Herzog’s admonition might seem like a rebuke, it wasn’t; it was an attempt at liberation. I think it’s a mighty act of human love to remind somebody that they can accomplish things by themselves, and that the world does not automatically owe them any reward, and that they are not as weak and hobbled as they may believe.

Such reminders can seem blunt, and often we don’t want to hear them, but there is a simple question of self-respect at play here. There is something magnificent about encouraging someone to step forward into his own self-respect at last—especially when it comes to creating something brave and new.

That letter, in other words?

It was my friend’s permission slip.

He got back to work.